North Carolina Legalizes Syringe Exchange

07/11/2016

On July 11, 2016 Governor McCrory signed a bill that legalizes syringe exchange programs in North Carolina. House Bill 972, sponsored by Representative Faircloth of Guilford County, was actually created to regulate the use of law enforcement body camera footage, but an amendment added during committee legalized syringe exchange programs as well. The amendment mirrored the language in Senate Bill 794, Authorize Needle Exchange Programs, which was introduced by Senator Stan Bingham of Davidson County this year to combat an alarming increase in hepatitis C spread through injection drug use. H972 passed 88-20 in the House and 48-2 in the Senate on Wednesday, June 29th.

The amendment to H972 authorizes governmental and nongovernmental agencies to establish syringe exchange programs to pass out sterile syringes and collect used syringes from the community for safe disposal. Syringe exchanges also connect people who struggle with addiction to health care services, housing, career training, and drug treatment programs. Syringe exchange programs were previously illegal in North Carolina, but H972 legalized them effective immediately.

“Syringe exchange programs have been a long time coming,” says Robert Childs, Executive Director for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a nonprofit that advocated for the bill. “In the seven years that I have worked for NCHRC, we have seen public opinion shift as law enforcement, legislators and people affected by drug addiction realize that we need a health-based approach to dealing with issues like injection drug use and hepatitis C.”

From 2010-2014 deaths from heroin overdose increased 565% across the state. As a consequence of the increase in injection drug use, hepatitis C, a liver disease spread primarily through the practice of sharing syringes to inject drugs, nearly tripled from 2010-2014. The cost to North Carolina has been substantial. While in 2013, North Carolina Medicaid doled out $8 million to pay for hepatitis C medication, in 2014 the costs rose to a staggering $51 million. The state paid $61 million in 2015.

The increase in injection drug use and hepatitis C has lead not only to higher taxpayer costs to treat these diseases, but also to a greater risk of needle-stick injury to law enforcement and members of the public who may encounter syringes discarded in as parks and public bathrooms. Syringe exchange programs, which operate legally in 20 states, have been proven to reduce HIV transmission among injection drug users by up to 80%, lower hepatitis C transmission by 50%, and slash needle-stick injury to law enforcement by 66%. Additionally, studies show that people who participate in syringe exchange programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment than non-participants.

“Had it not been for outreach teams providing clean needles I wouldn’t have made the decision to get off drugs,” says Mike Page. Page currently lives in Wilmington, a city that suffers from one of the highest rates of opioid abuse in the country. He stopped using drugs after connecting with a syringe exchange program in Arizona. “[The people who ran the exchange] made me feel safe and showed me there is a better way to live. They told me about resources in the community and planted a seed in me of thinking about health and recovery every time I got needles from them. When I was ready to make a change, I knew where to go for help.”

Many people credit the passage of the bill this year to the support from local health directors and law enforcement who called, emailed and visited their legislators to talk to them about the need for syringe exchange programs.

“Syringe exchange is not something that I would have supported a few years ago,” says Chief Bill Hollingsed of the Waynesville Police Department, “Like many people, I believed that giving someone a clean needle would only encourage drug use. But I’ve looked at the results of these programs in other areas and have come to understand that this is a community tool to engage a population that is completely outside the health care system. If we can bring drug users into the exchange and offer something they need, we can not only prevent disease and needle-stick injury to law enforcement, but start conversations about recovery options. It is not about encouraging drug use, but empowering them to find treatment and recovery options to help solve this crisis. Law enforcement will never arrest our way out of this problem. We need to explore options to end this epidemic.”